Patrimoine and Reggae at UNESCO

I was recently at UNESCO headquarters in Paris for the 13th Internet Governance Forum (IGF 13). Little did I know, while wandering the conference rooms and lobby displays devoted to the transformative path of the Internet into the high-tech world of the 21st century, that this same organization UNESCO was hosting a review of applications for the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list.  One thing looking to the future and one thing looking to the past!

What is UNESCO anyway, and who cares? The United Nations Educational, Scientific  and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations whose mission is “to contribute to the building of peace and security by collaborating among nations through education, science, culture and communication in order to further respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms ….as affirmed in the UN Charter”. UNESCO’s role in co-hosting the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), clearly a major and increasingly significant vehicle for communication, was consistent with its mission, and this latest IGF 13 had been featured in a commentary I wrote on the issues of privacy and cybersecurity on the Internet.

As for UNESCO’s role in looking to the past, one might be excused to have forgotten that at least the topic of culture, if not that of education or science or communication, does require an orientation to the preservation of culture.  One is quickly reminded that UNESCO is where the listing of “world heritage” sites is an important part of the preservation of culture. Not only has this function served as a vehicle for mobilizing resources for the preservation of these sites, but it has helped to stir moral outrage when extremists seek to destroy these cultural treasures.

So along comes this complementary endeavour in the form of a separate initiative for the preservation of “intangibles” – those aspects of a cultural heritage that are not enshrined in a particular physical structure but “demonstrate the diversity of cultural heritage and raise awareness of the importance” of a cultural heritage. Things like traditional craftsmanship or other forms of traditional knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. Things like – aha! – the cultivation of perfume plants, or the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials, or the art of perfume composition. These are, indeed, the very intangibles of the perfume industry that have made Grasse the “world capital of perfume”.

I must confess that I didn’t know much about this UNESCO initiative before witnessing the fanfare in Grasse to celebrate this particular achievement, but a review of the whole list suggests that I had to be aware of its existence. The UNESCO “convention” to develop this list of intangibles was adopted in 2003 and has an elaborate procedure to qualify for a listing. Nonetheless, it has accumulated quite a long list of crafts, songs, dances, gastronomic specialities and celebrations that are threatened to be lost. It includes dance steps like the tango (Argentina), rumba (Cuba) and flamenco (Spain). Both Arabic cofee and Turkish coffee are on the list. So is Chinese calligraphy and, lo and behold, even French gastronomy has qualified for preservation! Both falconry and yoga are there, too. (See the current list here.)

Why is all this important for Grasse? Well, we have been living here on and off for over twenty years – sometimes here at Villa Ndio full-time and at other times as a vacation home when our professional lives were focused on Geneva, Switzerland. So we have seen the ups and downs of its history as the “perfume capital of the world”. When we first arrived here, we acquainted ourselves with the local perfume factories and could savor the delightful fragrances in the air when the fields of roses or x were in full bloom. Soon, though, the fragrances disappeared as the perfume industry moved to synthetically produced fragrances, the fields were displaced by urban sprawl and the growing of whatever flowers were still in demand moved to developing countries. We actually saw this last phenomenon directly in our Geneva work with the International Labour Organization through the job creation in countries like Kenya from a growing export market in flowers. But we missed the fragrances in the air here in Grasse.

Grasse, however, is still the perfume capital of the world. That is to say, it has a history and a specialized expertise associated with its location (a unique “micro-climate” that distinguishes Grasse from the rest of the Riviera) that have kept Grasse going, at least as a tourist destination for the perfume factory tours. Our daughter even worked as a tour guide one summer at one of these factories – and wrote articles about her accompanying her grandfather when visitors came to see the town. We were also entranced by a rather macabre novel written by Patrick Suskind called Perfume which is set in Grasse – written originally in German but translated into 49 other languages, including English – and also adapted for the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The book and the film have become standard fare for us to introduce Grasse to our visitors at Villa Ndio.

All this suggests that there is indeed a rich cultural heritage of perfume making in Grasse, originating with an evolution way back in the 16th century from leather tanning to the introduction of fragrances to override the unpleasant scent of leather made into gloves. The unique skills that evolved from that era were enhanced, it seems, by a unique micro-climate that worked especially well to produce the most fragrant of the “tuberoses” that are so key to the production of the best of perfumes. As the UNESCO listing shows, the skills related to perfume in the Pays de Grasse cover three different aspects: the cultivation of perfume plants (i.e. the tuberose but also the rose and jasmine); the knowledge and processing of natural raw materials; and the art of perfume composition.

One might argue that the second of these aspects has been the key to the prospects for a revived perfume industry in Grasse – that is to say, the emphasis on natural materials at a time when the demand for natural cosmetics and fragrances has instilled a renewed interest in naturally produced perfumes.  Yes, some of the skills relate to the cultivation process, pertaining to the effects of soil, weather, biology, plant physiology, timing and other horticultural practices on that process. But there are also the specific techniques on the extraction of “essences” from the flowers and various hydraulic distillation methods. As the Association du Patrimoine Vivant du Pays de Grasse (the Living Heritabe Association of the Region of Grasse) has emphasized, these technical skills are reinforced by the “imagination, memory and creativity” of the social bonds and long learning processes “that still take place primarily in perfumeries”.

We have known about the importance of “noses”, skilled craftspeople in the art of perfume composition, and we understand that Grasse is now attracting more of these “noses” to practice their skills in this region. But the key seems to be the skills in the processing of natural raw materials that link the cultivation advances of the Pays de Grasse with the art of perfume composition with an appreciation for the skills of converting natural products from the land into the materials that are used for that composition process.

While the traditionalists would claim that this kind of knowledge can only be transmitted through the kind of apprenticeship experiencies within traditional perfumeries, it is also a part of this transformation of Grasse that we are witnessing the introduction of standardized learning through formalized teaching. Not surprisingly, then, the Mayor of Grasse, Jerome Viaud, has officially announced the opening in 2018 of a new “superior school of perfume” to award a Master’s degree on the “flavour and fragrances industry”. Wow. What is more, this school is situated in the historic center of Grasse, as part of the French government’s project (“Coeur de Ville) to promote the revitalization of inner cities.

To go back to that UNESCO decision, the announcement came on 28 November 2018 that the knowledge of perfume in Grasse is an appropriate intangible cultural heritage to be added to the UNESCO list of protected intangibles. It will take a while to find a catchy phrase to describe this achievement, but it is a noteworthy development to contribute to the revitalizing of the Pays de Grasse as the “perfume capital of the world”. It is actually quite inspiring. It ties in to a broader “Aroma Grasse” campaign under the current Mayor of Grasse Jerome Viaud to promote the “essence” of Grasse “entre ville et campagne”. The countryside around Grasse is benefiting from the establishing of new “productive agricultural” zones, while other initiatives are supporting the industrial revitalization of the processing and composing of perfumes. One such initiative comes from the Swiss company Givaudin, a world leader in flavours and perfumes to expand its research and development facilities in Grasse. Another is the expansion of a museum on the history of perfume.

The UNESCO campaign, itself, proved to take a good ten years under the leadership of the former Mayor of Grasse and now Senator Jean-Pierre Leleux, as President of the “Living Heritage Association” to establish the broad base of support among the producers and so forth in Grasse to show that this is indeed a process deserving “world heritage status”.  Congratulations to the Association and the inspired belief in the future of Grasse. We are amused that the “reggae” of Jamaica shared the spotlight with Grasse for additions to this UNESCO list in 2018. But that only adds to our enthusiasm that the UNESCO list is doing its job of mobilizing awareness about these kinds of cultural intangibles, to complement its hosting of forward-looking initiatives like the Internet Governance Forum. We like them both.

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